There is a unique satisfaction in cultivating and preserving our own crops, serving as a reminder that the convenience of supermarkets falls short of its promises. After dedicating our time and effort throughout spring and summer to grow our own food, it would be a shame not to fully utilize the harvest.
However, handling the abundance of summer crops can be quite challenging as they all seem to ripen simultaneously.
During the peak of summer, it is advisable to inspect garden plants every other day to identify what needs to be harvested. Remember that the smaller versions of fully ripe fruits and vegetables often offer the best taste and nutrition.
Once you gather the bounty, choose a storage and preservation method that suits your time constraints. If you find yourself with a free Saturday morning after harvesting, you might consider trying your hand at smoking chipotles or making pickles and chutney. On a busy weeknight, though, it may be more practical to preserve the produce by freezing it. And, of course, relish in the pleasure of consuming as many succulent, ripe, garden-fresh gems packed with optimal nutrition as possible—while they are still available!
HARVESTING: Different tomato varieties ripen at different rates. Some types ripen all at once, while others, like cherry tomatoes, continue to bear fruit throughout the season. Check your plants every few days or daily during the peak of harvest, picking the ripe ones as you spot them. Leaving a short stem attached to the tomatoes will help extend their freshness.
STORE: Fresh tomatoes are best stored at room temperature and should never be refrigerated. Keep them away from other fruits, such as bananas, as they can hasten ripening. Tomatoes can last for a few days under proper storage conditions. If you come across any tomatoes with damaged skin, it’s best to consume them promptly.
PRESERVE: Small tomatoes can be frozen whole by placing them on a parchment paper-lined tray. Once frozen solid, transfer them to freezer containers, removing excess air, and freeze for up to a year. These tomatoes can be cooked directly from frozen.
Another delightful preservation method is oven-roasting tomatoes with herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper until they become completely soft. Allow them to cool, then scoop the mixture into jars and store in the freezer for up to a year. This roasted tomato base is perfect for sauces, soups, chicken cacciatore, chili, and various other dishes.
To dry tomatoes, cut them in half and place them skin-side down on fine-meshed wire racks set on trays. Sprinkle a bit of salt over the tomatoes. Put them in an oven heated to the lowest temperature with the door slightly ajar. Dry for 6 to 12 hours, depending on their size, until the tomatoes turn leathery. Let them cool in the oven before transferring them to jars. After a week, check for any condensation. If present, dry the tomatoes in the oven a bit longer. In warm and dry regions, you can also dry tomatoes in the sun with a layer of muslin or cheesecloth on top, ensuring to bring the trays inside at night. Dried tomatoes can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to a year and used in soups, stews, or rehydrated with olive oil as a delicious antipasto.
Try this – TOMATO SEASONING: Don’t let tomato peels go to waste! When peeling tomatoes, save the highly nutritious skins to make tomato powder. Place the skins on a parchment paper-lined tray and put them in an oven heated to the lowest temperature, with the door slightly ajar. Dry the skins until they become crisp, then cool and grind them into a powder using a spice grinder or a food processor. Store the tomato powder in a jar and use it as you would paprika to add a flavorful tomato twist to your dishes.
HARVESTING: When it comes to cucumbers, you have options. Pick them as gherkins when they are small, or allow them to stay on the vine longer for salads and pickling. Look under the foliage to find hidden cucumbers, and gently twist them off the plant or use scissors to snip them.
STORE: Cucumbers can be kept at room temperature for approximately three days. Alternatively, store them in a perforated bag in the crisper of your refrigerator for about a week.
PRESERVE: An excellent way to preserve cucumbers is by making pickles. You can try easy refrigerator pickles, canned vinegar pickles, or even home-fermented brine pickles.
Try this – ROASTED DUKES: Want to experiment with cucumbers? Try preparing roasted dukes. Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Cut them into pieces resembling potato wedges. Lightly salt the cucumber pieces and let them sit for about 20 minutes to extract excess water. Pat them dry, toss them with oil and herbs, and bake in a hot oven for approximately 15 minutes. Serve the roasted dukes hot with a pat of butter.
HARVESTING: Carrots are ready to harvest when their roots reach a desirable size and color. Gently loosen the soil around the carrot tops and pull them out by the greens, taking care not to damage the roots.
STORE: Remove the leafy tops from the carrots before storage, as they can draw moisture and nutrients away from the roots. Carrots can be stored in a cool and dark place, such as the refrigerator crisper or a root cellar, for several weeks.
PRESERVE: Consider canning or pickling carrots for long-term preservation. Peel and cut the carrots into desired shapes, then pack them into sterilized jars. Add a brine or canning liquid and process according to canning instructions. Alternatively, you can blanch and freeze carrot slices or grate them for future use in soups, stews, or baked goods.
Try this – CARROT TOP PESTO: Don’t discard the carrot tops! Instead, use them to make a flavorful pesto. Blend washed and dried carrot greens with garlic, nuts (such as pine nuts or almonds), Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Adjust the ingredients to taste and enjoy the vibrant and unique carrot top pesto on pasta, sandwiches, or as a dip.
HARVESTING: When harvesting bell peppers and hot chilies, you have the freedom to choose the desired color stage. Green peppers, which some people enjoy, transform from sharpness to sweetness as they change colors. If you prefer green peppers, wait until the fruits are full-size and just starting to change color. Snip them off with a small stem attached.
STORE: Place peppers in a bag in the crisper of your refrigerator, and they should stay fresh for about a week.
PRESERVE: To freeze bell peppers, blanch them for 5 minutes, then allow them to cool while steaming in a sealed container or a bowl covered with a towel. Peel off the skins, halve the peppers, and remove the seeds. Pack them into freezer containers, removing as much air as possible, and freeze for up to a year. Alternatively, you can oven-roast bell peppers with olive oil and garlic until they become nearly black. Let them steam, remove the skins if desired, allow them to cool, and then freeze. As for small hot chilies, they can be frozen whole or chopped up and packed into ice cube trays.
For drying bell peppers, follow the same blanching process as freezing, and then allow them to dry completely. Place the dried peppers on a wire rack over a tray and put them in an oven set to its lowest temperature with the door slightly ajar. Dry for approximately 12 hours, turning them after about 5 hours, until they become brittle. After cooling in the oven, store the dried peppers in a jar in a cool, dark place for up to a year, ensuring no condensation forms by checking after a week. If condensation is present, dry them in the oven a little longer. Sweet peppers can also be ground in a coffee grinder to make paprika.
For drying hot chilies, it is best to use thinner-fleshed peppers like cayenne. Wash them in salty water to prevent mold, and create a string of chilies by sewing them together with a needle and cotton thread (wear gloves for protection). Hang the string of chilies in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight to dry.
Try this – HOMEMADE CHIPOTLES: If you’re feeling adventurous, you can smoke red jalapeno chilies to make chipotles using an ancient Mexican technique. The smoky flavor of the wood enhances the complexity of the chilies. Different types of wood, such as hickory, pear, apple, and mesquite, can be used to achieve varying flavors. To smoke the chilies, create a well-burning fire in a wood-fired barbecue with a lid, and add soaked wood chunks. Place de-stemmed, halved, and seeded chilies on wire racks or in baskets (in a single layer) inside the barbecue and cover with the lid. Smoking the chilies completely will take approximately six hours, and they should be dry yet pliable. Once cooled, store the smoked chilies in jars in a cool, dark place for up to 12 months.
Zucchini & Summer Squash
HARVESTING: Pay close attention when harvesting zucchini, as they often hide behind their large leaves. The smallest fruits tend to have the best flavor and highest nutrient content. Gently twist the squash to remove it from the plant.
STORE: Zucchini can be kept fresh in a perforated bag in the crisper for up to a week.
PRESERVE: To freeze summer squash, slice them into thin rounds and blanch them for a few minutes. Drain and cool the slices in ice water, then drain again and spread them on a clean towel to dry. Pack the dried slices into freezer containers, removing excess air, and freeze for up to a year.
Try this – SQUASH BLOSSOMS: Treat yourself to the delicacy of squash blossoms. Pick the bright yellow flowers in the morning or evening, and remove the pistil or stamen before cooking. Sauté the squash blossoms, stuff
HARVESTING: When the eggplant skins are smooth, glossy, and deeply colored, carefully snip the ripe eggplants from the bush using scissors to avoid damaging the stems.
STORE: You can store eggplants at room temperature for a few days. Alternatively, place them in a bag in the crisper to extend their shelf life for up to a week.
PRESERVE: To freeze eggplant, slice it into thin pieces and blanch them in boiling water with a dash of lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Cook the slices for 4 minutes, then drain and rapidly cool them in ice water. Drain again, spread them on a clean tea towel to dry, and store them in freezer containers, removing as much air as possible.
Try this – EASY EGGPLANT CHUTNEY: Finely chop an eggplant, an onion, a sweet pepper, a hot pepper, and some garlic. In a pan, heat olive oil and sauté the chopped ingredients for 5 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup each of honey and vinegar, and add a chopped mango if available. Season with salt, coriander, and cumin. Simmer the mixture until it thickens to a desired consistency, which usually takes around half an hour. Remove from heat, let it cool, and refrigerate in a sealed container. Serve the delicious chutney in sandwiches, alongside roasted meats, with curries, or as part of a cheese plate.
HARVESTING: Harvest cabbage heads when they are firm and have reached the desired size. Use a sharp knife to cut the cabbage at the base, leaving a few outer leaves intact for protection.
STORE: Cabbage can be stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks. Remove any damaged or loose leaves before storing. Alternatively, you can refrigerate cabbage in a plastic bag in the crisper for up to a few weeks.
PRESERVE: For long-term preservation, consider making sauerkraut. Shred the cabbage, then mix it with salt and pack it tightly into jars or fermentation crocks. Let it ferment at room temperature for several days, then transfer to the refrigerator. The sauerkraut will continue to develop flavor over time.
Try this – CABBAGE WRAPS: Use cabbage leaves as a nutritious alternative to tortillas or bread. Blanche the cabbage leaves briefly in boiling water to soften them, then use them as a wrap for fillings such as ground meat, rice, or vegetables. Secure the wraps with toothpicks and enjoy a healthy and flavorful meal.
HARVESTING: Harvest broccoli heads when they are firm and tightly formed, typically when the florets are still compact and dark green. Use a sharp knife to cut the main stem below the head, leaving a few inches of stem attached for easier handling.
STORE: Store unwashed broccoli heads in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper for up to a week. Keep the broccoli dry to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to spoilage. For extended storage, you can blanch and freeze broccoli florets.
PRESERVE: Freezing is a popular method for preserving broccoli. Start by blanching the broccoli florets in boiling water for a few minutes, then transfer them to an ice bath to cool rapidly. Drain and pat them dry before packing them into freezer-safe containers or bags. Label and freeze for up to a year.
Try this – ROASTED BROCCOLI WITH GARLIC: Preheat your oven to 425°F (220°C). Toss broccoli florets with olive oil, minced garlic, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl until well coated. Arrange the seasoned florets in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for about 20-25 minutes, or until the edges are crispy and golden. Serve as a delicious and nutritious side dish or add to salads, stir-fries, or pasta dishes for extra flavor and texture.
These expert tips provide valuable insights into maximizing the harvest of fresh produce and extending its storage life. By implementing these strategies, gardeners and enthusiasts can enjoy the fruits of their labor for longer periods and make the most of their bountiful harvests.
The importance of timely harvesting cannot be overstated. Regularly checking plants for ripe fruits and vegetables ensures that they are picked at their peak, offering optimal flavor and nutritional value. Harvesting smaller versions of fully ripe produce is often recommended, as they tend to be the tastiest and most nutritious.
Proper storage techniques play a crucial role in prolonging the shelf life of harvested produce. Knowing the ideal storage conditions for each type of vegetable is key. Some vegetables thrive at room temperature, while others benefit from refrigeration or specific storage methods such as perforated bags. By following these guidelines, one can preserve the freshness and quality of the produce for an extended period.
Preserving surplus harvest is another smart approach to avoid waste and enjoy the flavors of homegrown produce throughout the year. Freezing, canning, pickling, and drying are popular preservation methods that help retain the taste and nutritional value of vegetables for an extended period. These techniques allow for the creation of a diverse range of delicious dishes even when fresh produce is not in season.
Finally, experimenting with different cooking and preparation methods adds excitement and variety to the culinary experience. Trying alternative recipes and techniques, such as making chutneys, roasting, or using vegetable parts that are often discarded, provides new ways to enjoy and savor the harvested produce.
By implementing these expert tips, individuals can not only harvest more produce but also prolong its storage life, ensuring a continuous supply of fresh and nutritious ingredients. Whether you have a backyard garden or access to local farmers’ markets, these practices empower individuals to make the most of the abundance of nature’s bounty. So, roll up your sleeves, get creative in the kitchen, and savor the flavors of your own harvest year-round.